When I picked up the permits at Shall Lake, the park staff seemed to be in utter disbelief over my route choice. The attendant triple checked to make sure I actually meant Boot Lake as opposed to similarly named (and highly popular) Booth Lake. On paper this route seemed like a no brainier to me. A paddle of 17km and 6 portages totaling 3.2km that need to be doubled back on the following day, could easily be accomplished in a relaxing weekend. Our destination of Boot Lake had 2 campsites and was connected by 4 “Black Line” portages, so odds were it would provide quiet and seclusion that a crowded Booth would not deliver. What could go wrong? As far as I was concerned pre-trip, Algonquin was the manicured lawn of tripping destinations compared to some of my bushcrash, first descent, never been mapped, crown land trips. Just follow the handy yellow signs and when in doubt double check the map. Easy Peasy Right!? Wrong.
Before departing, the Shall Lake attendant informed me that the portage marker at the trailhead of the Raja-Muskrat portage was reportedly missing. She also informed me that few have attempted to paddle to Boot in recent years and those who did, gave up, ultimately staying on Raja instead. As I departed she wished me luck and mentioned Raja was unoccupied and seldom visited so it would be just as fine as Boot. This information only inspired me to reach Boot Lake. On paper the route looked quite simple and if the sign wasn’t there I’d scan the shoreline for signs of a trailhead, besides I’m used to unsigned, unmaintained crown land tripping.
After spending a relaxing night on Farm Lake we set off under a cloudless morning towards the maintained portages leading into popular Booth Lake. Coolers, crowds and noisy neighbors dotted the numerous campsites and we hastened our pace to leave the chaos behind us. A scenic paddle up McCarthy Creek thinned out the crowds as we ventured into the low maintenance portion of the route. Upon entering Mole Lake, we were met with a signed and well established trail to Raja, which had us questioning why this was such an imposing route.
A quick paddle led us to where the 800m portage to Muskrat was supposedly located. Scanning the shoreline we saw no evidence of a portage sign. No problem, just look for a probable landing! After locating what seemed to be a good bet for the start of the portage, I scrambled out of the canoe and attempted to locate a sign of the trail. Armed with my map, compass and GPS, I scoured the bush for any sign of the trail. I kept a keen eye out for the tell tale signs; old blazes, soil compaction, even garbage! After an empty bottle of Jack Daniels had me following a beaver trail through a thicket of brambles, I gave up and returned to the canoe to attempt another probable landing. 45 minutes and numerous scratches later, I had bushwhacked the entire northern shoreline of the bay where the portage was supposed to be and still uncovered nary a sign of a trail.
Undaunted and even more determined, we paddled to the opposite shoreline in a last ditch effort to locate the trail. Within a few seconds of looking we had spotted a possible landing and I clambered onshore to search for clues. I quickly uncovered a faint path which I followed into the woods for a few meters before I saw it; a trail blaze! Faint, old and grown in, the blaze must have been decades old, but it was a sign I was on the right track! A few more blazes later and I knew I had located the portage! The maps had it completely wrong! No wonder many gave up and camped on Raja!
Triumphantly returning to where my girlfriend Leah and the canoe were waiting, I announced this was it, and so we set off towards Muskrat Lake! The portage was in poor condition, overgrown with saplings and ferns. We lost the trail a few times before regaining our bearings and picking up the correct path. Upon successfully reaching Muskrat Lake, we faced another portage search. The 255m portage into Bailey Lake proved elusive and as we desperately sought Boot Lake, we ultimately bushwhacked up a game trail and creek bed for 100m. However, paddling a few meters down the shore of Bailey Lake, we noticed a landing and remnants of a portage sign in the bush. The portage was on the opposite side of the creek! The maps were wrong again!! Thankfully the final portage into Boot Lake, though unsigned, was clearly evident and straight forward. A huge relief!
At long last we reached the elusive Boot Lake! A private lake bursting with fall colour, was certainly well deserved after the day’s events. We quickly located a prime campsite on a rocky point sheltered by windswept pines (unsigned no less) and unwound around the campfire sipping red wine, listening to the haunting cry of a distant wolf pack. This was a perfect Algonquin moment.
Brad Jennings in a canoeist and blogger at ExploretheBackcountry.com.